In many ways, Catherine Skinner is a typical stay-at-home mom.
The 37-year-old former actress lives with her family on a 30-acre farm in rural Ontario where she spends her days cooking, knitting and caring for three children.
She even has a mommy blog (playboymommy.com) on which she shares her housekeeping tips and photos of herself cooking in a pencil skirt like ones worn by the housewives of Mad Men.
But there is one aspect of Skinner’s life that is far from regular: Her family is polyamorous. The man she calls her husband, Nekky Jamal (37), also has a legal wife, Sarah (41).
For the past five years, since moving in with the family, Skinner has been a full partner and spouse to both of them, as well as an adopted mother to their two biological daughters, aged 8 and 10. A year and a half ago, she gave birth to a son, who is growing up, like his sisters, with two moms and a dad.
“What I tell the kids is that we have a unique and special family,” she says.
“Not everyone will appreciate it, and some people will be fearful of it, but to us if feels like the most natural, normal thing in the world.”
The Jamal-Skinners are part of a small but noteworthy number of families who are making the choice to raise their children in polyamorous partnerships involving three people or more. Call them bopos (bourgeois polyamorous) or polyfidelitous (the more academic term), they are the most conventional members of the “poly” sub-culture, a group that includes everything from orgy-obsessed swingers to S&M enthusiasts.
Like many polyfidelitous families, the Jamal-Skinners lead conventional lives outside of their domestic partnership. Educated, affluent, socially liberal professionals (Nekky is an eco-business consultant and Sarah is a business analyst at York University), they believe in political tolerance, private education and shielding their kids from too much TV. They do not have outside lovers, or go to sex clubs, or wear PVC clothing. As Nekky describes it, “We’re not trying to promote a particular lifestyle. We’re just adults who made a grown-up decision to raise our family a different way.”
There are no hard statistics on the number of poly families, and few polyamorists are as “out” as the Jamal-Skinners. But academic researchers estimate that anywhere from 3 to 5 per cent of the North American population engages in some kind of consensual non-monogamy.
While still uncommon, poly families have at least become more noticeable. Polyamory has been the subject of several new books in recent years. Last summer, American writer Angi Becker Stevens, wrote about life with her daughter and two male partners in a Salon essay titled My Two Husbands. The popular parenting blog Mommyish.com has a regular column penned by an anonymous writer called Polyamorous Mom. On Pinterest boards devoted to poly family life, devotees can post pictures of themselves and their spouses cuddled up in king-sized beds.
To some, polyamory is the final frontier in the battle for sexual tolerance – a fight that started with the rise of feminism and still rages in the debate over gay marriage. And their hope is that, just as society has gradually come to respect the rights of transgendered, gay and bisexual people, so too will it eventually accept the rights of people who choose to live together consensually as spouses.
This is what families like the Jamal-Skinners believe, and it’s why they insist on being completely open about their family life. “Our middle daughter loves to walk up to strangers and say, ‘Guess what? My family is cool – I’ve got two moms and a dad!” Nekky says with a laugh. “And I think that’s great. From the outset we’ve always said, if we’re going to do this, we have to be completely open.”
But while bopo families might abhor being lumped in with the likes of the polygynous religious community of Bountiful, B.C. (in which underage girls are groomed for marriage to older men in a manner that critics argue is not fully consensual), legally speaking they are very much in the same boat. The landmark B.C. court ruling in 2011, which allowed groups of people beyond a couple to live and raise children together in a “conjugal fashion,” effectively decriminalized polyfidelity in Canada – though the court did hold up other aspects of the polygamy law.
While the Jamal-Skinners insist they are not political, they do feel poly families should be afforded the same rights as their coupled contemporaries. Many poly activists maintain theirs is not a lifestyle choice but a different sexual orientation.
The notion of polyamory as aberrant is relatively new. Elisabeth Sheff, a U.S. academic consultant, points out that for a long time poly families were actually the norm. “Conventionally speaking, one man with many wives – polygamy – is more common across cultures and across time than monogamy,” she said.
But today, the notion of monogamy as the gold-standard of relationships is one embraced by conservatives and liberals alike. To question its moral legitimacy (especially when young children are involved) is deeply unsettling for most people. One obvious challenge of bringing up children in a polyamory family is the thorny issue of social stigma. Tara, a 42-year-old graphic designer and mother of two who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that when she and her husband of over 20 years decided to take a new male partner into their marriage seven years ago, they were ostracized in their community. “It was great for our family, but not when the surrounding community found out,” she said. “Playdates and invitations to kids birthday parties stopped. People avoided us at the playground. We lost many friends. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Tara and her family eventually moved to one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands where they have found a more socially tolerant community. But she says it’s still difficult: “One woman actually said to me, ‘Why can’t you just have an affair like everyone else?’”
It’s this perceived hypocrisy that frustrates many bopos. They point out that while marital infidelity is an open secret in our society, polyamory is still viewed as aberrant. Or, as Skinner puts it, “Most people are polyamorous to some extent. Unlike us, they just choose to lie about it.”
Once you get past the taboo aspect of polyamory family life, the practical benefits begin to emerge. The Jamal-Skinners, for instance, are double income family with a stay-home parent – an enviable set-up for any family with three young children.
And then there’s the issue of sleeping arrangements. Sarah and Catherine have their own rooms, and Nekky moves between the two at will. According to Catherine, “He doesn’t feel the same need for his own space.”
For this story, I spoke to a stay-at-home mother in Orange County, Calif., who had a full-time non-live-in partner in addition to her husband; to a married mother of two who had for a time lived as part of a “quad;” and to a handful of other married polyamorists. But none were as open or unconcerned about social ostracism as the Jamal-Skinners, and they would not allow the use of their real names.
Perhaps the Jamal-Skinners are simply lucky – they say that after the initial shock wore off, their close friends and family members accepted their relationship. “Our kids are our greatest ambassadors,” says Nekky. “In the early days of our relationship, we were painfully aware of how different we were, but now we often forget. And anyone who has doubts can see how great the kids are, which is the greatest testimony to the fact that our family works.”
Nekky gets a lot of jokes, he admits, about having his cake and eating it too. But as he likes to remind people, “Yes, I’m very blessed to have two wonderful women in my life, but it’s also two relationships to manage.”
And that may be the most challenging aspect of polyamory family life: the potential for emotional drama and jealousy. Kendra Holliday, an office manager in St. Louis, Mo., who also works as a counsellor for couples choosing to transition into the polyamorous lifestyle, says that poly spouses need to be good communicators, especially when children are involved. “Introducing a third or fourth person into your marriage can be incredibly destabilizing if it’s not managed properly,” she said. “Everyone thinks of the sex with poly people, but actually the emotional work is what primarily sets them apart from monogamous couples.”
Indeed, Skinner says she and her partners “would never have survived if it hadn’t been for the help of a good therapist.” But their transition into polyamory, which seemed fairly radical at the time, now feels normal.
“Polyamory doesn’t blend that well into the social fabric yet,” says Nekky, “but if you look at the day-to-day aspect of our life, we’re really not that different at all.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that actress Tilda Swinton was involved in a polyamorous relationship. At one time, she lived with the father of her children as well as her boyfriend, but it was not polyamorous.